A group of scientists from the University of Hawaii made international headlines last week when they claimed to have recreated the perfume of Cleopatra, Egypt’s legendary queen known for her allure. In Egypt, the local beauty sector has also been banking on “Pharaonic recipes” to compete with pricey international beauty brands.
The ancient Egyptian queens whose faces are seen on murals or well-known statues were not simply natural beauties — Cleopatra, Nefertari and Nefertiti had complex beauty routines that included honey, mud or goat's milk, and modern versions have been growing in popularity in Egypt over the last decade.
“I’ve done a lot of research on the beauty rituals of the pharaonic era and how the ancients used beauty products,” Hisham Hassanein, co-owner of the “Back to Nature” shop, told Al-Monitor. He explained that he came up with “100% natural beauty products" based on Pharaonic recipes.
Ancient Egyptians — both men and women — used burnt almonds to fill in their eyebrows, kohl to emphasize their eyes, milk and honey as face cream and beeswax for epilation and perfume. The discovery of King Nammer’s plate, a 3100 BC ceremonial palette that was used for mixing cosmetic ingredients, showed that both male and female royals used cosmetics.
Seven years ago, Hassanein started by making a few natural creams for hair and skin based on ancient recipes. Initially, his products “barely filled up two shelves in a pharmacy.” But a few years later, he opened his own shop in Dahab, on the southeast Sinai coast. As his customer base grew, he opened another shop in Cairo.
“Chemical products have many harmful effects on skin and hair, so people from all around the world start to turn to natural products in general,” Hassanein said. "We have a great heritage of natural recipes.”
Other brands such as “Zoganon” and “Nefertari” are also capitalizing on the allure of products inspired by the ancient Egyptian era, producing kohl, creams, soaps and oils at affordable prices. A small bottle of their hair oil costs about 50 Egyptian pounds (about $3), while equivalent products can cost over 340 Egyptian pounds (about $20).
The lure of ancient Egypt is not limited to beauty products. Several local organizations have formed platforms for teaching or advocating “pharaonic medicine” such the Academy for Pharaonic Medicine in Cairo and the Association for Pharaonic Medicine Practitioners, founded by Mahmoud el-Shazly in Alexandria.
Shazly told Al-Monitor that the association offers courses in cupping therapy, herbal science, manufacturing creams and massage.
“The field of Pharaonic medicine is wide and we needed an entity to speak on our behalf. That’s why I established the association,” Shazly said. A lawyer by training, he admitted that he didn’t study medicine at university but did study traditional Chinese medicine in 2012.
“Pharaonic medicine is being taught in many international universities worldwide, so I thought of teaching it here in Egypt. It is more effective; it heals all illnesses and has no side effects,” Shazly said, adding that the association has 30,000 members in Egypt and other Arab countries.
The association is often criticized by doctors and other medical experts who hold that ancient recipes are not scientifically proven and unsafe to be used by people who did not study medicine, admitted Shazly.
“Many doctors attack us. But we want to assure them that we only start our work after their diagnosis. Then we give people the appropriate remedy,” he said and claimed that the relationship between doctors and drug companies caused the doctors' stance against natural products. It means less medications prescribed, he said.
Shazly said he wants Egypt to pay more attention to healing that is based on ancient wisdom and use it as a touristic attraction.
Ancient Egyptian medicine, which appears in documents that date back to 2900 BC, is one of the oldest known medical traditions. After decoding the Rosetta Stone in 1822, experts were able to translate many ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic papyri that contain medical information. For example, the Ebers Papyrus includes hundreds of prescriptions for illnesses and the Edwin Smith Papyrus addresses the diagnosis and treatment of numerous ailments as well as surgical methods.
Dr. Waseem el-Seesy, an Egyptian urologist and Egyptology researcher, told Al-Monitor, “[Modern medicine] uses some of the herbal medicine known in ancient Egypt such as the halfa-bar, an aromatic grass that grows widely in Upper Egypt. It is used in Proximol. Similarly, ammi visnaga — a flowering plant in the carrot family used in Ancient Egypt — is used in drugs for the treatment of several diseases including kidney stones. There are many things we use today that date back to old Egyptian formulas.”
But he stressed that people should always seek a doctor’s advice. “The ancient Egyptian medicine is important and is still relevant but we should use it right and under a doctor’s supervision,” he said.